Ehrlich unveils bill to toughen felony gun possession sentences

Governor's proposal calls for more federal cases

February 05, 2003|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took a step yesterday toward fulfilling his campaign promise to make life dismal for "bad guys with guns," spelling out legislation that would stiffen sentences for criminals caught with firearms.

If he prevails, billboards would spring up around Baltimore warning thugs they could be sent to prison in Arizona if they carry a gun; white-collar felons could face two years in jail for having a hunting rifle; and U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio would shift his policy and take more gun cases.

The implementation of "Project Exile" in Maryland is Ehrlich's crime-busting priority, and yesterday he disclosed details of his plan -- a two-pronged approach that would toughen state sentencing laws while counting on closer cooperation with federal prosecutors.

"Of course it's not the answer, but it's a multidisciplinary approach," he said. "What we're trying to do is strengthen our state statutes and get more federal prosecution where appropriate."

The latter has been a contentious subject since DiBiagio was appointed by President Bush in 2001 -- with help from Ehrlich. During the governor's race, Ehrlich criticized DiBiagio for not handling more gun crimes, also a complaint of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley.

DiBiagio had said he would take only the most serious gun cases, since Maryland sentences are as harsh or harsher than federal ones. But in November he announced he was hiring two assistants to handle firearms violations and would take more Baltimore gun cases.

"Although we are not aware of the details of the governor's plan, we intend to cooperate with the governor and continue our aggressive firearms prosecution effort," DiBiagio said in a statement yesterday.

Ehrlich's bill -- which itself has nothing directly to do with Project Exile -- would significantly expand the types of crimes that could earn a defendant a minimum sentence of five years in prison without the possibility of parole.

Advocates from the National Rifle Association and Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse said at first glance they do not object to the bill.

Under current law -- passed in 2000 -- any violent felon in possession of a handgun is subject to a five-year sentence. Ehrlich's bill would broaden that measure to make any prior felony conviction -- including forging a check -- grounds for a mandatory minimum sentence if the defendant possessed any kind of firearm, including a shotgun.

Mandatory sentences would also apply to someone who possessed a firearm on school grounds and either fired it or behaved as if he or she intended to; to those convicted of certain cases of second-degree assault; and to those convicted of conspiracy to commit a felony.

The bill would prohibit three-judge panels from being able to change such sentences, as they now can. Previous legislative attempts to rescind judicial revisory power have been rejected by the General Assembly.

In addition, Ehrlich's bill would require that a judge, rather than a court commissioner, decide the pretrial status of a felon in possession of a gun.

Project Exile began in the 1990s in Richmond, Va., as an understanding between local and federal authorities. Federal officials prosecuted gun cases to hand out stiffer sentences than were available under state law. While studies of the program found the results mixed, many other states and cities have adopted some form of the initiative.

Attempts to institute a similar system in Maryland have failed in House and Senate committees in recent years. But with a large number of new members serving on the House Judiciary Committee and a new chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, this year could prove different.

"We've had it a couple of times," Del. Joseph F. Vallario Jr., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said of the Exile bills. "We'll see what the big differences are."

Sen. Brian E. Frosh, chairman of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said he would give the bill a fair hearing, but that "on its face" it didn't seem to do a whole lot.

"Project Exile was an agreement between Richmond and the state of Virginia," Frosh said. "I don't know why the administration isn't making that deal with Mr. DiBiagio."

The governor's staff is quietly working with DiBiagio; his legal counsel, Jervis Finney, has met with the federal prosecutor to discuss cooperation.

Because the measure also provides maximum sentencing guidelines of 20 years for certain crimes, it was welcomed by Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy. Jessamy has complained that without the threat of a maximum sentence, her attorneys cannot negotiate pleas with gun criminals because they all want trials -- which tend to result in dropped charges or acquittals.

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